Sundance Film Festival

Cyborg Cinema

On Thursday, as people listened in the dim light of the Microcinema theater at New Frontier on Main to a panel entitled “Social Cyborg: How Technology is Changing Us,” across town at the Racket Club ticket holders were lining up to see Alex Rivera’s SLEEP DEALER. At one place people were discussing the future of technology in extending bodies, identities, and communities; at the other, Rivera unfurled his dystopic image of a cyborg future in which labor crosses over from Mexico via fiber cables rather than through border check points.


SLEEP DEALER


Rivera started creating film and digital art pieces while in college, primarily as a way to discuss immigration and labor issues. In 2000, he brought his script for SLEEP DEALER to the Sundance Writer’s lab, and then the Director’s Lab the next year, where he met his future producer Anthony Bregman. But while politics were foremost in his mind, as a filmmaker his first goal was to create a believable future. “I’d always loved science fiction, loved the fact that the characters were real outsiders,” a condition that as a child of Peruvian father he implicitly understood. To bring his vision to film, Rivera (with his producer Bregman) did the near impossible – create a effects-laden low-budget sci-fi epic. Of the 1,300 shots in the film, Rivera rightly brags “at least 400 were effect shots.” Festival head Geoffrey Gilmore describes the end product as “a combination of THE MATRIX, BLADE RUNNER, and THE BORDER.” And interest in the film connects activist immigration groups and web-based fan boy groups.

Indeed SLEEP DEALER might have been what moderator Katie Hafner (technology reporter for the New York Times) had in mind in prepping for her panel “Social Cyborg.” After issuing an essay by Sherry Turkle, the Director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self Program in Science, Technology, and Society on the nature of machines and identities to the panelists, Hafner asked them then to ponder how Turkle’s work impacted their fields.

As with the best panels, the resulting discussion offered few clear answers, but lots of probing questions. What is an authentic identity? What is community? How do new technologies effect cultural conceptions of race, gender and nationality? Who do we become online? Each panel member brought their own particular backgrounds and concerns to the panel. Writer/activist Ken Jordan of Reality Sandwich picked up on the concept of authenticity — be in a relationship with another human being or a machine — from Turkle’s article. For him, “Authenticity is a very big part of what we are doing at Reality Sandwich. People are seeing a need for change. They are stepping away from corporate media and looking for a new way to connect.” For him there is a sort of cyborg community built as disparate communities with little physical interface find connections with groups who have “similar cultural aspirations.”


Daniel Pinchbeck, Ken Jordan, Andrew Parry, Anthony Marshall, Moderator Katie Hafner


Andrew Parry, who works with Microsoft’s Xbox, commented, “in the gaming world, we constantly struggle with this element of identity — what is the identity of the gamer, how do we get them to interact with each other, how do we allow people to create that identity in which they can feel safe.” On the other hand, Anthony Marshall, who works with Current TV, talked learning to be transparent on line. Rather than hide behind a created identity, he allowed himself to be exactly who he is – that is an African-American who grew up in a Afro-Caribbean family with mother who, as Marshall explained, “sold ganja, the healing herb, not the drug.” Such transparency allows him to life his life on Myspace or Facebook without any duplicity. “I am not afraid to say who I am,” asserted Marshall,”this is who I am. I am a very real person, and it is hard to be in technology and be so real.” A fact confirmed by the others on the panel: Jason Calacanis (CEO of Mahalo.com), Daniel Pinchbeck (consciousness author, Reality Sandwich), and Sameer Padania (The Hub).

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Peter Bowen

Editor, FilmInFocus.com